Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On DVD: "Prom Night in Mississippi"

Morgan Freeman spent his youngest years in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi; now he lives there, when he's not working. The population of the town is a mere 2100, and Charleston High School sports an attendance of 415 students--70% black, 30% white. The school didn't integrate until 1970, but the school's parents refused the have an integrated school prom, so every year thereafter, there was a separate prom for black students and for white students--on through the 1970s, through the 80s, and through the 90s. In 1997, Freeman offered to pay for the school's prom out of his own pocket--if the school board would allow both groups to comingle at the event. They turned him down.

In 2008 the actor made the offer again, and this time the school and the students took him up on it. Paul Saltzman's documentary Prom Night in Mississippi is the story of what happened, how this startlingly anachronistic taboo was broken in a year that race relations were, in fact, at the front of many people's minds. It's a good doc, if not a great one--it seems to ignore potentially compelling larger themes, and some of the technique is peculiar. But it is a fascinating and remarkably candid portrait of this tight-knit community.

The film begins focused squarely on Freeman, who discusses what led him to make the offer; it also follows him to an assembly of the school's seniors, where he talks it over with them. He tells them that when people ask him why the school does what it does, "I can't explain that. But," he adds, "I do want to change it." Once the offer is accepted, the actor moves in the background, and Saltzman turns his camera towards the students and instructors who have to make it happen.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the event will go off without a hitch--primarily the students themselves, who have mostly chosen to ignore the racist views of older family members to make friends (and even boyfriends and girlfriends) with students of other races. There's Heather and Jeremy, the longtime interracial couple, who still battle the suspicions and concerns of her parents; there is Jessica, whose parents' racism is so intense, she moved out of home early rather than face threats for having black friends; and there's "Billy Joe" (name changed, face obscured) who speaks freely about the attitudes he was brought up with.

Before too long, though, a group of Caucasian parents go about arranging a prom just for their kids (and others "like" them); unsurprisingly, the film crew is not allowed to shoot at the event, or even outside of it. A lawyer explains their argument thusly: "They're just having a party for all the kids who happen to be white, and they want it to be just for them." Happen to be white?

At any rate, in that scene and others where cameras either weren't or couldn't be present, the filmmakers devise an ingenious solution--they create stylized animated sequences as interview subjects explain what they miss. It's an imperfect solution (in an ideal documentary situation, you'd like your cameras to have unfettered access), but a clever one. Less successful is the decision to use "student cams," allowing the subjects to create video diaries; they're used sparsely and ineffectively, veering the film into the kind of reality TV feel that it otherwise manages to artfully avoid.

By the time the film arrives at the big night of April 19, 2008, we're drawn in--these are likable kids, and it's fun to watch them dealing with small issues (the right dress, transportation, and poor John and his two dates) instead of contemplating the weight and gravity of what is happening at their school. That said, those broad themes don't seem fully explored at the picture's end; it comes to a fine enough conclusion, but it feels a bit emotionally incomplete. Still, all things considered, Prom Night in Mississippi is a strong, honest, thought-provoking documentary.

Prom Night in Mississippi is a well-intentioned, good-natured, and smoothly-produced nonfiction picture. It doesn't quite do everything we want it to do, and not all of its stylistic gimmicks land, but it is heartfelt and thoughtful, which isn't always easy to come by these days.

"Prom Night in Mississippi" is currently available on DVD. For A/V and bonus feature information, read this review on DVD Talk.


  1. Nice review my friend! I really enjoy reading your work!

    I love documentaries so I'm really excited to catch this one!

  2. Thank you sir! It's definitely worth a look.